Lenses: Don’t Collect the Whole Set

Published July 18, 2010

Wisdom comes from experience. Experience comes from bad decisions. Author unknown

This article is written for those people who not too long ago walked into (or more likely logged onto) a camera store and purchased their first digital SLR and a lens or two. It was 12 years ago for me, but I still remember the feeling: a bit guilty that I’d spent that much money on a camera and two lenses, but after printing a few pictures, I was secure in the knowledge that I’d never, ever need anything else to do the kind of photography I’d always wanted to do. But then, slowly, a horrifying thing occurred. I realized there were photographs I couldn’t take with my equipment. I was going to need some other stuff. And, oh my god, that incredible amount of money I’d paid for that camera was not really very much at all, compared to what I suddenly lusted after.

I was lucky, though, because I was able (like you are now) to get advice from experienced photographers, who told me exactly what I should do as I began to add to my gear and expand my hobby and skills. I’m not saying I was lucky because I got great advice and followed it. I was lucky because I ignored it and gained lots of experience , which has now resulted in me having wisdom when it comes to buying camera gear. So now I will pass that wisdom on to you. Some of you will benefit from that wisdom and save thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours. Most of you, just as I did, will prefer to gain your own wisdom by doing it your way. A few thousand wasted dollars and a few hundred hours of wasted time is a small price to pay for becoming wise, right?

First, let me summarize my path:

  1. Buy intro level SLR and two cheap zoom lenses ($1500).
  2. Get much advice which consists mostly of “learn how to use the equipment you have”, “buy a good tripod and a flash first”, and other stuff I didn’t want to hear. ($0)
  3. Buy 18-300 zoom, so I have one lens that does everything ($400), cheapest tripod and flash I could find ($200). Discover that even bad tripod and flash really help photography. More cheap lenses don’t.
  4. Give away cheap stuff I bought after realizing nobody but a noobier noob than me would buy that crap. Buy a decent mid-range zoom to replace kit lens ($500). Another decent zoom to replace cheap telephoto lens. ($700) Realize better glass does makes a difference.
  5. Buy a supertelephoto zoom because telephoto shooting will be very cool, and who would pay that much money for a high quality telephoto lens. Sell cheap telephoto zoom for 1/3 of what I paid after discovering it can only get decent shots at noon on cloudless summer days when I borrow a good tripod. ($800)
  6. Buy good telephoto zoom with image stabilization ($1,500). Fall in love with photography again when I see how good the images are. Borrow friend’s tripod on a lark. Buy a good tripod and ballhead, when I see the good zoom is even better when properly supported.
  7. Upgrade to better camera to make sure I’m getting maximum resolution from my new better lenses ($1300).
  8. Try to shoot indoor sports events with consumer zoom. After missing 16,853 shots of my kids, finally break down and buy 70-200 f/2.8 lens ($1500). Get 62 great shots before kids both quit sports to go into text messaging full-time. Justify cost of zoom on the basis of how much I’m saving on sports equipment and uniforms for the kids.
  9. Realize 70-200 f/2.8 zoom makes my other lenses look bad. Get better zooms so I have the whole range from 16 to 200 covered with f/2.8 zooms ($3500).
  10. Shoot with a $300 50mm prime and realize the image quality is better than my $1300 24-70 f/2.8 zoom. Plus the wide aperture lets me do all kinds of cool things. Plus, it’s 1/10th of the size. Also, about this time I realize I’ve actually become a decent photographer (priceless).
  11. Realize that $6,000 worth of zoom lenses have sat in the closet for 6 months, that all I want to shoot is the $300 prime lens. Realize that prime lens will be even better on full frame camera. Sell zooms, buy full frame camera and more consumer grade primes ($4000).
  12. Realize that the primes are really soft in the corners on a full frame camera. Buy top quality fast aperture primes ($8000). Go on vacation. Realize changing lenses on the beach is really not such a great thing to do. Buy back zooms I sold for 25% more than I sold them for.
  13. Kids start playing sports again. Find out full frame camera shoots about 1 frame every second. Realize 70-200 f/2.8 isn’t long enough on full frame camera. Buy 300 f/2.8 lens ($3500). Buy pro-quality 10-frames-per-second camera ($3300). Get great shots of a couple of games. Kids decide to quit sports again and go back to professional texting. Investigate being part-time sports photographer since I have equipment. Find out I can’t stay up that late anymore.
  14. Consider changing brands, since another brand released this really great camera that does things my camera won’t do. Realize that will mean changing all my lenses. Examine finances. Actually examine lack of remaining finances. Realize my current camera is better than I am, that I have some amazingly great equipment, and no money.
  15. In desperate attempt to stave off bankruptcy, start

I’m not sure I set the record for most money wasted entering photography, but I’m sure I’m way up there. If I had it to do over again, here’s what I would do.

Build A Basic Kit First

Even if you already know that all you really want to do is take Macro images of hook worms, you’ll still want to be able to use your equipment to take vacation photos, put 400 snapshots of your kids on Facebook, or sell your Ex’s stuff on eBay, so you’ll need a basic set-up. For the vast majority of us, that will mean a crop-sensor camera (and for most of us that’s all we’ll ever need). Unless you have some strong ideas that you need certain things in a camera, the introductory model is fine: it will take a couple of years to really find yourself limited by the camera and by that time, no matter what camera you bought originally, your camera will be out of date and you’ll want a new one. If you do know, absolutely know you’ll need some advanced features like high frames-per-second or the ability to shoot at ISO 12,800, then you might start with a Prosumer level crop sensor. With the lenses available these days, I can’t think of many reasons for a person to start off with a full-frame camera, unless they are migrating from film.

I usually recommend not getting a ‘kit lens’ with a camera if you can avoid it. Generally, it’s the cheapest lens the manufacturer makes. Similarly avoid the two lens kits or three lens kits so popular on eBay and with shadier camera stores unless you absolutely know what you are getting. Those are generally junk, although sometimes adequate for a little while. Some cameras, though, do come as a kit with a pretty nice lens at a reasonable savings: The Canon 5DMkII with the 24-105 L lens, the Nikon D90 with 70-300 VR and Nikon D300s with 18-200 VR are all nice kits. Notice none of those are the intro level bodies, they’re all one or two steps up.

Instead of the camera-and-kit-lens I usually recommend one of these two ‘starter lens’ options:

  • A reasonable quality super-zoom with vibration control (image stabilization, whatever). These are never the best quality, but the good ones are pretty good—at least as good as (and usually better than) the kit lens that they try to push off on you—and with far greater range. And while the super-zooms are often laughed at by the semi-pro camera snobs, they’re really useful. There are times one-camera-one-lens is ideal for all of us: the quick trip where you might take pictures, the vacation where all the images will be posted online, etc. The Tamron 18-270 VC is my favorite of these at the moment, but there are many good ones: The Nikon, Canon and Sigma 18-200 lenses are all decent.
  • A two or three lens zoom kit: always a 70-300 vibration control and something in the 24-70 range. If you can afford it I’d add an ultra-wide zoom like a 12-24mm or 10-20mm. The 70-300 lens your camera brand makes is usually the best choice in that range, all are good quality and reasonable cost ($500-600). In the standard range I think the Tamron 28-75 f/2.8 or Sigma 24-70 f/2.8 provide good quality at reasonable cost. For the ultra-wides, they are all good. I’d shop price more than anything in that range.

An initial kit like this will let you take almost all the shots you want to take, give you good enough image quality to print 8×10 images that are excellent, and if all you’re going to do is post photos online or look at them in a digital frame, it may well be almost all you’ll ever need. More importantly, using this initial kit will let you determine fairly quickly what it is that you want to do but this kit limits you from doing. After a few months you may realize you want to have a longer telephoto lens, or be able to take more close-ups, or you need wider aperture for indoor work (or you may not, in which case you are done). That will tell you exactly what kind of lens you need next, rather than send you off on a “collect the whole set” buying spree.

There are a couple of other things that I recommend everyone get, even if they don’t realize they need them:

  • One wide-aperture consumer-grade prime lens. You might wait a bit to decide what focal length you want: an 85mm, perhaps, if you want to shoot indoor sports, a wider lens if you want to take indoor family photos. It will also give you the opportunity to see if you’d really use a wide aperture lens if you had it.
  • A tripod and head, inexpensive quality. Almost everyone who tries a tripod uses it a lot. It may be to take portraits, to let themselves get in the picture with the self-timer, shoot photos at night, the uses are numerous. A good tripod and head will cost several hundred dollars more than an intro set and I’m not sure most people need it. A good system is much sturdier and easier to use, though, and would be a good investment at this point if you know you are going to shoot large telephoto lenses or will be using it all the time.
  • A medium quality flash. For Canon it would be the 430 EX, Nikon – the SB 600. Flash can be intimidating at first, but there’s no investment that will get you get more images than a decent flash. And no, the on-camera flash doesn’t cut it for anything except fill flash. Nothing screams “Could have done that with a point and shoot” like using the on-camera flash. This is the one investment made at this stage that you will almost certainly continue to use no matter how far you go down the equipment trail—long after the first camera is gone and the first lenses are upgraded, you’ll still use that flash.

Having Shot Your Basic Kit for a while, Decide What You Really Need.

Once we leave good equipment and head towards better to best equipment, there are some principles to remember. Most of them can be summarized by better lenses cost more and do less but I’ll expand that a bit below:

Roger’s Rules of Equipment

Increasing capability is increasingly expensive. To go from poor quality to good quality costs a little money, to go from good to excellent costs much more. To get to the best costs a fortune. The graph below is a good example: a 50mm f/1.8 lens is dirt cheap, and an f/1.4 lens is a few hundred dollars more. But an f/1.2 50mm lens is about $1400. And if you need one of the rare f/1.0 or f/0.95 lenses, you’ll spend thousands.

Increasing specialization is always a trade off. We’ll use the the Canon 50mm f/1.0 lens as the example. It can shoot at f/1.0, an amazing thing, you can take images by candlelight. But it’s soft at f/1.0, except right in the center, you don’t get both that amazing aperture and a tack sharp lens. And the depth of field at f/1.0 is so narrow that it can be very difficult to get the entire subject sharply focused. Even stopped down, it’s soft in the corners. It’s 3 times the cost of a 50mm f/1.2, but unless you absolutely need what it does, it’s not a better lens.

Smaller apertures are the great equalizer. If you shoot them both at say f/5.6 or f/8, you’d be hard pressed to tell a lot of difference between the 50mm f/1.8 and a f/1.2. In fact, you might find the cheaper lens is better at f/8 because the more expensive lens is designed to be shot wide open. One thing, though, I’m talking about the difference between a decent lens and a great lens here. A bad lens will still suck at f/8. There are times this can be very advantageous: a landscape shooter shooting at f/8 would spend his money more wisely getting a good tripod for $400 rather than an f/2.8 lens to replace a good variable aperture lens. A studio photographer might be better off buying good lights rather than a wide aperture lens (unless he needs very narrow depth of field, of course).

A lens designed to do everything does nothing well. There is no 16-500 f/2.8 Macro because it would be as big as a car, cost as much as a house, and probably have pretty poor image quality. There are some general rules (there are exceptions) you can take from this.

  • Zooms, even the best zooms, are not quite as good as primes of equal quality. (Some may be as sharp, but they’ll give up aperture.)
  • A zoom greater than 4x is rarely of superb quality. If it’s of good quality, it will be expensive.
  • There are no true “Macro Zooms”, although there are zooms that can focus fairly close that are labeled as Macro.

Shooting at extremes is always more expensive. There are lots of reasonably priced, inexpensive lenses from 20mm to 200mm, but getting longer or wider, given equal image quality and aperture, will markedly increase cost.

Decide what area of your photography you want to expand

It’s easy to say “I shoot everything” and most of us do. But there are certain things we shoot the most, or that are most important to us. Since we have a good basic kit already, we can shoot “everything” with that and invest our money for the most important things. One thing that has to be thought about at this stage, not decided, but thought about, is “Do I think I’ll eventually move to full frame”. If the answer is yes, then we might steer our purchase to lenses that will transition with us, if the answer is no, then we can save some money in many areas using lenses designed for crop sensors. If it’s maybe, then we’ll cross that bridge if we need to (it doesn’t matter in the telephoto range, for example, but matters a lot if we’ll shoot wide angle landscapes). Once we’ve decided what we want to expand, we can look at equipment choices that are best for those needs.

Areas of Emphasis.

Shooting sports.

The major need for sports shooters are wide aperture, fast frames per second, and long focal length. As a rule at least an f/2.8 aperture is required, and for indoor sports even wider aperture than that may be necessary. A crop-frame camera may actually be an advantage because of the apparent increase in focal length: a 70-200 f/2.8 may be long enough for football on a crop camera, but probably won’t be on a full frame, for example. 10 frames per second is nice, but not necessary by any means, so I don’t recommend putting your money into a top end camera until you have lenses that will do it justice. A camera that will shoot higher ISO, though, can be a huge advantage.

In order, my investments for sportshooting would be:
1) A 70-200 f/2.8 zoom. (Image stabilization is not particularly needed because you need fast shutter speeds anyway.) It’s a long enough focal length for sideline shooting outdoors, and may (or may not) be a wide enough aperture to shoot indoors.
2) A longer lens depending on budget. The gold standard is a 300mm f/2.8. This is the work horse of pro and semipro sports shooters. Outdoors it can be used effectively with a 1.4x teleconverter to give more reach. But it’s expensive and out of the reach of most part-time shooters. A telephoto zoom might be ok for outdoor sports in bright sunlight, especially if your camera can shoot ISO 3200 or 6400 acceptably. Often overlooked is a 300 f/4 prime lens. In sunlight it provides fast enough shutter speeds for sports, is tack-sharp, and costs less than a telephoto zoom (and far less than a 300mm f/2.8).
3) A telephoto, wide-aperture prime, such as an 85mm f/1.8 or 100 f/2. There are times f/2.8 just isn’t going to be enough aperture for indoor work.
4) A second camera. There’s a reason you always see pro photographers on the sideline with two cameras: one with a 70-200 f/2.8 mounted and hanging around their neck for when the action comes close, the other mounted to their long telephoto lens on a monopod. There is no time to change lenses during the middle of a play heading in your direction.


I’ve arbitrarily divided this into two categories: the occasional wildlife shooter (a couple of weeks or a few weekends a year) and the obsessed wildlife shooter (all Birders and private detectives fit in this category). Occasional wildlife shooters want good equipment that they can carry to get good wildlife shots when they travel to interesting locations. Obsessed wildlife shooters want the best possible images they can get and will travel anywhere, and spend anything, to get them. Before you read further, though, if you haven’t read How to Get Sharp Telephoto Images and Teleconverters 101 do that before proceeding. The biggest waste of money in photography is the bad telephoto lens, followed closely by the good telephoto lens without proper support.

In order, my investments for wildlife shooting would be:
1) A good telephoto zoom. Even if you progress to obsessed wildlife shooter and eventually buy huge telephoto prime lenses, you’ll keep this because it’s so useful. The Canon 100-400 is superb, as is the Sony 70-400. The Nikon 80-400, unfortunately, is only adequate because of its fairly slow autofocus. The Sigma 50-500 OS (The BigmaOS) would be my first choice if I shot Nikon or Olympus, and my second choice for Canon and Nikon shooters. The Tamron 200-500 is another good choice, especially for backpackers because of its small size, but, having no image stabilization, you’ll need a tripod to use it effectively.
2) A high quality tripod and ballhead. I know it’s not what you want to hear. Reality is a bitch. Get one now or get one later, but if you want to shoot wildlife, you’ll get one eventually.
3) 90% of people will be happy stopping at #2. But for those who become obsessed wildlife shooters you’ll probably need a top quality telephoto prime. It’s big money, but the only way to go when only the best will do. At this point I think there are two choices for the next step, either of which is excellent.
A 500mm f/4 and 1.4x teleconverter The 500 is the most popular long lens for several reasons. It’s not horribly heavy (meaning you can carry it for a while and strong people can take a shot or two hand-held), they are amazingly sharp, and take a 1.4x converter to get you 700mm of total range while maintaining reasonable aperture and good sharpness.
A 300mm f/2.8 with 1.4x and 2x teleconverters The 300 can have several advantages (besides being cheaper than a 500mm): While large, it’s much smaller than the 500 and fairly easy to shoot hand-held. The f/2.8 aperture gives a 1 stop advantage over a 500 in dim light, and allows it to take a 2x teleconverter (giving a 600 f/5.6). Plus, for large wildlife 500mm may be too long sometimes.
4) If you go past this step, you already know more about this than I do, so my further advice will be unwanted and unneeded.

Macro photography

Definitions are in order here, because this term gets abused a lot. Many third party manufacturers slap the word “Macro” on any lens that can focus reasonably close (I’ll call these pseudo-macro from now on). A true Macro lens can focus so closely that it gives 1:1 image size, meaning the object’s image on the camera sensor is the same size the object actually is. If you want to take close ups of flowers, for example, a pseudo-macro is enough. If you want a close-up of the honey bee on the flower, you’ll need a true macro. True macros are always prime lenses and all are incredibly sharp. Longer focal lengths will let you work further away from the object and still get maximum magnification. (Useful if that honey bee is actually a killer bee, but more useful because it also lets more light get to the subject, since your big camera lens isn’t blocking it.)

  • A good introduction to Macro photography can be had by buying a set of extension tubes for $100 or so. With extension tubes mounted you won’t be able to focus at infinity (I’m sure you all know that, but I didn’t 10 years ago) but you’ll be able to focus your lenses much closer than you could otherwise and get real macro shots.
  • The 90-100mm Macro range is usually what I recommend to start with: 100mm gives you a reasonable working distance away from the object, the lenses are still small enough to use hand-held, and the cost is reasonable.
  • Macro is one area where third party lenses are excellent, generally as good as the manufacturer’s lenses, and usually of lower cost. The Sigma 150 f/2.8 Macro is extremely popular, but the Tamron 90mm f/2.8 is also superb.
  • If you really get into Macro photography then your next investment probably shouldn’t be more Macro lenses, it should be a focusing rail and a macro light set. Macros need a lot of light. A whole lot of light. Because you’re often in shadow and usually shooting stopped down to get a reasonable depth of field.

Studio and portraiture

Depending on the effects you want, nice portraiture can be done with many different types of lenses. Usually the longer focal lengths (50 to 135mm) provide less distortion and are preferred. Some photographers want the shallow depth of field of a wide-aperture prime or an f/2.8 zoom, particularly for out-of-studio work. But the budding portrait photographer, especially in-studio photographer, is best served by investing in good lighting, backgrounds, and post-processing software before worrying about major lens and camera upgrades.

When it is time for better lenses though, the 24-70 f/2.8 is often the preferred zoom, followed by the 70-200 f/2.8 (especially for those shooting full-frame). 50mm and 85mm prime lenses are also staples for most portrait photographers.

Wedding Photography

Before we get into “which cool lenses do I get”, there are some less sexy things that really should come first. Well first should actually be a lot of experience as a second shooter, but I’ll drop that for now. The absolute first requirement of anyone shooting any wedding is a backup camera. Three cameras for two shooters is fine, but no backup is not fine. All cameras fail eventually. If that occurs during a wedding, it goes from fail to epic fail. Following those two things (experience and backup camera) I would rank equipment in the following priority (but there are lots of other approaches that are quite different).

1) Shoe mounted flash (that you should already have) with diffuser, bracket, and off-camera flash cord.
2) Adequate computer and software to get through 400 to 1200 shots, sort the good from the bad, and salvage the borderline images reasonably quickly. The amount of time spent post-processing makes the difference between “worth it” and “not worth it” to many wedding photographers.
3) A pair of f/2.8 zooms giving you range from 24mm to 200mm. This isn’t a necessity, but it sure is nice to have f/2.8 when you need it. A camera that shoots ISO 3200 with good quality can often be an alternative to f/2.8 lenses, though. Lighting can also be an alternative to wide aperture sometimes, but not always.
4) A light stand, second flash with diffuser, and the ability to slave the flash to your camera flash. Amazingly useful in everything from posed portraits to the reception.

After that it’s all gravy!

And then . . . .

Well it seems pretty simple and straightforward the way I set it up. But since 90% of SLR owners never even buy a second lens after their initial purchase, most of the rest either spend 400 hours in online forums before buying each piece of equipment or buy everything first and see what it does later, if you’ve read this far – congratulations: I’ve written an article just for you!

Author: Roger Cicala

I’m Roger and I am the founder of Hailed as one of the optic nerds here, I enjoy shooting collimated light through 30X microscope objectives in my spare time. When I do take real pictures I like using something different: a Medium format, or Pentax K1, or a Sony RX1R.

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  • Michael Clark

    I’ve heard it as “Good decisions are the result of wisdom. Wisdom is the result of experience. Experience is the result of bad decisions.”

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